Aristotle taught that there are two ways for a man to pursue happiness: by having it depend on his own actions or by farming it out to other people. Of these two procedures, he clearly preferred the first, for he found it burdensome to cool his heels while committees of others, not necessarily his friends, debated whether he ought to be happy or not.
This preference for private action over public hat-twirling has often occurred to me during the past few days, when every piece of paper I pick up has a caricature on it by somebody who is bent on showing me whether I was happy in the 1970s, and sketching out what my life will be like as the 1980s roll by. These come from all sorts of folks, ranging from James Reston, who morosely asserts that the world is out of control, the oil is short, the Third World is rabid and we are helpless against "the deeper and more tragic tides running under the surface," to Ben Wattenberg, who says we have a good chance for clean air, wholesome fun and lots more of those wonderful consumer goods.
Both of these interpretations seem to proceed from the assumption that private reality is generated by public events, and I wonder how deeply this is so. For instance, my own real life during the 1970s consisted of this: a wonderful marriage throughout; two good children born at the beginning of the decade who required to be tucked in every night; earning a university degree by working my way through; constantly worrying about money; being, in fact, exceedingly poor; writing books; teaching at universities; saying my prayers; talking deep into the night with good friends; visiting my mother and grandmother and having a fuss made over me; shooting pool, going to the race track, taking walks; watching Monday Night Football; chasing my old black dog around the back yard, or being chased; learning new things in long delicious hours of private study; being smitten almost to madness by Mozart-fits; and above all, being surrounded by the family in which I am son, grandson, uncle, husband, nephew, brother, father and -- under this roof, anyway -- a hard-pressed petty magistrate, sentry and all-purpose explainer of the universe. That is what the 1970s were for me, and I loved them.
But when I am shown what these years "really" were, I am not only confronted with movies I didn't go to and books I didn't want to read, but I am made to rub up against inflation, Soviet buildup, pollution, Third World hostility, terrorism and crime; as if the caricaturists are trying to convince me that real life is an illusion and that one's true inner being is fashioned out of dollar bills and the contents of the evening news. But I remain secretly convinced that those dark, flat events were chiaroscuro for a far more radiant picture and that their true effects have been to enhance our lives, rather than suppress them.
I do not say this to be shocking; nor do I mean to imply that a nuclear missile landing in one's back yard might not have some effect on that day's activities. But I am saying that since we are not in total control of whether that missile comes plummeting in or not, we could do worse than to concentrate on what is under our jurisdiction: whether there are locks on the door, soups in the pantry and good books on the shelf; whether the children are indeed tucked in; and whether we ourselves are well-informed and sane enough to participate in public events in a responsible way. Only thus may bad news be made to have good effects; by underscoring the uncertainity of life, it may put steel into our determination to live it well, and mirth into moments that may never come again.
"The deeper and more tragic tides running under the surface" are not just a fad of the 1970s, but the human condition. So we are creatures of more than any mere decade, and brothers to those forefathers who lived surrounded by hostile savages, or fled pogroms in terror-struck night journeys, or lay alone fighting despair in dark ships crammed with a thousand other captives on their way to God-knew-where. That these men endured, I sometimes believe, can tell us more than any trend-watchers can. An not least of such endurers was that old Greek who learned that philosophers must be quick on their heels.
Our omnipresent dangers -- the threat of depression, social breakdown and national annihialtion -- were not made to be worshipped. Moreover, they do not constitute the life of any man or nation, but are merely the somber backdrop against which such lives are lived. And what distinguishes American life is not that common darkness, but the human courage and lucidity in so many of the faces that shine out of it.
These faces, not many of which are beautiful or famous, are etched with the hard-bought knowledge of how necessary it is to overcome even disgust in order to live up to public responsibility. But if Aristotle was right, and if experience teaches anything at all, one learns such lessons only in private life, where self-control is more important than world-control, and character more determinative than circumstance. No wonder, then, that we are bemused by the sidewalk artists who, having their noses stuck in newspapers, paint our "lives" for us, black on black. Better to go ahead and live than to stand passively posing for that. Those people are not going to look up anyway. Or so an old Greek suggests.